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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Americans Support Expansion of Renewable Energy, Surveys Show

Summary.  Public opinion surveys in the U. S. show that more than two-thirds currently think there is solid evidence that the earth is warming.   The surveys find the public supports expansion of renewable energy.  A majority of Republicans among survey respondents are included in this supporting class.  One survey reports that Republicans believe their elected representatives do not “care much about” what they think about climate change. 

Policymakers should respond to poll results such as these and coalesce around efforts to expand renewable energy.  Many policy justifications exist to support this position.

Introduction.  Climate scientists from all around the world overwhelmingly agree that manmade greenhouse gases have contributed significantly to increased long-term global average temperatures over the last several decades.  They foresee a future by the end of this century, and beyond, having profoundly higher temperatures and consequent harmful impacts on human welfare and planetary climate conditions.  The substance of these projections of future harms has not changed since the first report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990. 

Policymakers around the world, especially those representing countries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases, have been unable to arrive at an agreement for a meaningful reduction in these emissions.  Nevertheless, in the U. S. the public has gained increased appreciation that global warming is an issue that needs to be addressed.  This post summarizes some recent public opinion surveys of attitudes toward global warming.

Pew Research Center surveys over the first months of 2013 are summarized here.  Their survey in February 2013 found that 69% of Americans think there is solid evidence that the earth’s average temperature has been increasing in recent decades.  The trend for this question since 2006, as well as for the question of whether warming arises mostly because of human activity, is shown in the graphic below, which includes survey results from March 2013.
Survey results over 2006-2013 showing the percent of Americans thinking that the earth is warming (top, bronze) and that the warming is due to human activity (bottom, gold). 
The graphic above shows that American public opinion bottomed in 2009-2010, both on whether the earth is warming, and on whether warming is due to human activity, and has increased significantly since then.  American belief that humans have caused global warming has consistently been at least 20% lower than agreeing that warming is occurring at all.
There is a dependence of attitudes about global warming in the U. S. on affiliation with a political party or outlook.  The Pew survey in March 2013 shows that U. S. Democrats (more liberal) are far more likely than U. S. Republicans (more conservative) to agree that global warming is occurring, and that it is due to human activity (see the table below).

Dependence of attitudes about global warming on political identification.  “Rep”, Republican; “Dem”, Democrats; “Ind”, politically independent or unaffiliated.
There is also a stark division by political affiliation about whether Americans regard global warming to be a problem, according to a Pew survey from October 2012.  A majority of Democrats believe it is a very serious problem, but only one-fifth of Republicans do.  Conversely, only 1 in 6 Democrats believe global warming to be either not too serious a problem or not a problem at all, whereas more than half of Republicans fall in these two groups.
Gallup Poll results show that there is strong support for renewable energy in the U. S. across the political spectrum.  A survey of 1,022 subjects in all 50 states gave results having a 95% confidence level with a ±4% error.  Respondents were given a choice of placing more emphasis, less emphasis, or about the same emphasis, as currently done for supplying our energy needs from various sources.  They chose “more emphasis” by large margins for solar power (76%), wind (71%), and natural gas (65%), with much lower preferences for more emphasis for oil, nuclear energy and coal.  Breakdowns by party affiliation in this survey are shown in the following table.
It is seen that Republicans strongly support more emphasis on solar power, wind, and natural gas, but also oil.  About half of Republicans further support more emphasis on nuclear power and coal.  Democrats, on the other hand, overwhelmingly support more emphasis on solar power and wind energy, with less than one-third supporting oil, nuclear power or coal.
Climate Change Communication project.  George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication have been collaborating on the attitudes of Americans on global warming over the past several years.  They released a new report on April 2, 2013 providing results of a survey of U. S.Republicans on the subject of climate change.  938 people who had identified themselves as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents in a previous survey taken in Fall 2012 were called back in January 2013 for this survey; 77% of those agreed to participate.  Important findings are summarized here.
More than half of Republicans surveyed think that climate change is happening.  52% agreed, 26% did not agree, and 22% didn’t know.
A large majority supports expanded use of renewable energy.  These Republicans support much more (51%) or somewhat more (26%) use of renewable energy.  (In the survey, “renewable energy” consists of solar, wind and geothermal energy.)  Most of these (69%) felt measures should be started “immediately” toward this objective.
The survey also probed this issue from the converse perspective. 51% of Republicans indicated that the U. S. should use fossil fuels (i.e. coal, oil and natural gas) somewhat less (31%) or much less (21%) than today.  Only 22% favored increased use of fossil fuels, giving a ratio of about 2.5 to 1 favoring less use. 
Perceived benefits of reducing use of fossil fuels outweighed perceived “costs”.  (As seen below, “costs” does not refer to monetary costs, but to social and economic factors.)  Respondents could choose more than one from among 9 listed benefits and 6 listed costs.  The three benefits chosen most frequently, among 538 of those surveyed, were “help free us from dependence on foreign oil”, “save resources for our children & grandchildren”, and “provide a better life for our children & grandchildren”.  The benefit listed as “limit climate change” was next to last.  The two highest perceived costs chosen among 477 of respondents were “lead[ing] to more government regulation” and “caus[ing] energy prices to rise”.
After having weighed the benefits, costs, and other factors 64% of Republicans think “we SHOULD take action to reduce our fossil fuel use”, whereas 35% think “we SHOULD NOT take action” (capitalization in the survey as reported).
Perceptions of politicians’ responsiveness to people.  The Republican respondents showed an apparent skepticism or alienation concerning their ability to influence political decisions.  More than half  “do not think elected officials care much about what people like me think about climate change”, and think “people like me don’t have any say in what the government does about climate change”.  Only 8% think “elected officials pay a lot of attention to the views of people like me” on this issue.
Surveys from three different polling organizations are summarized here.  Polling results can be partly influenced by the way that poll queries are phrased.  Yet the poll results reinforce one another quite consistently, making clear that overall they reflect the thoughts and feelings of the American public.
Americans favor expanding support and/or development of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.  The reasons given for this widened support cover a broad range, including achieving energy independence and expansion of a new economic sector with its attendant growth in job opportunities.
In the U. S. Congress, Republicans have opposed development of renewable energy.  There may be many factors contributing to the development of policy positions among legislators, including responsiveness to the wishes of constituents, sensitivity to economic interests, and development of support for retaining elected office.  In this regard it is significant that the survey results from all three polling organizations show that respondents who identify themselves as being avowedly Republican or favoring Republican positions strongly support development of renewable energy sources.
Among Republicans responding to the Climate Change Communication survey more than half think climate change is happening, and three-quarters of them support more or somewhat more use of renewable energy.  After weighing perceived benefits vs. perceived socioeconomic costs about two-thirds of Republicans surveyed think we should act to reduce use of fossil fuels. The Pew and Gallup surveys found comparable support among Republicans.  Anecdotally, the New York Times reports on April 9, 2013 that the Republican mayor of Lancaster, CA, a desert community with plenty of sunshine, is undertaking to install sufficient solar photovoltaic capacity to generate more electricity than his city needs.
The Climate Change Communication project found that of the Republicans surveyed more than half felt alienated or ignored by their elected representatives.  If this is a valid representation of attitudes held by the officials, it suggests they pay more attention to other considerations than to taking the opinions of their constituents into account.
Conclusion.  Polling shows that the fraction of Americans that thinks global warming is occurring, and that human activity is a cause, is growing in recent years.  The majority of Americans think growth of renewable energy sources should be supported.  More than half of Republicans, and in certain surveys many more, are included among those supporters.  Many reasons, most having to do with national security and economic factors, are identified for this support.  Explicit identification of global warming or similar environmental concerns is low on this list.  Elected officials who are our policymakers at the national level should pay heed to survey results such as these.  They should support expansion of renewable energy sources for all the reasons mentioned in the Climate Change Communication survey.
 © 2013 Henry Auer

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